From the killing of Trayvon Martin to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Trymaine Lee has been on the ground reporting some of the largest racial justice stories of the past several years. Lee is a columnist and correspondent at MSNBC, where he hosts the “Into America” podcast exploring the Black experience in America. Prior to joining MSNBC in 2012, Lee reported for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Tribune, the Trentonian, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on Hurricane Katrina. Lee also holds an Emmy Award for outstanding news coverage and analysis for his reporting on gun violence in Chicago.
Lee spoke with Nieman Fellows in October about breaking the initial story on Trayvon Martin, advocacy journalism, navigating around police narratives, and more. Edited excerpts:
On his time in the Black press[Being at The Philadelphia Tribune] was an honor, but then you also saw the limitations. It’s like the Negro Leagues. Some of the greatest talent has come through the Black press. But then it came to the point where it was like, ‘Do you stay or do you go to the big leagues where the resources are?’ It was actually tough to leave, in some ways.
I’m glad that I was able to go contribute. It was just a great launching pad, to get my feet wet as a journalist and to understand all the cogs of the machine. I would continue in the following years as a young reporter to really understand the machine, but I couldn’t have gotten the start I did without the Black press.
I wasn’t concerned [about respectability]. I was talking to Black people, so as long as the community respected me, that was all I needed. I wasn’t thinking about white people, or the white gaze, or anything else because the work that I was doing was high quality work anyway. I think that work and that opportunity got me the next job. I knew our audience, and our audience respected us and respected me, so I never thought about [what white audiences thought].
I do think that sometimes, Black journalists in particular, we do feel like, ‘Will they respect me if I go [to the Black press]?’ We’re second-guessing ourselves and that weakens, not only our spirits to always have to be worried about what white people are thinking, but also the product. Who are you writing for? Are you changing what we naturally do for the sake of someone else? It’s a mythological person, in some ways.
On choosing to stay in New Orleans during Katrina
I’m from New Jersey — South Jersey — originally. I was 26 years old. Didn’t have any family down there. I remember there was an editor who just left to go to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
We were just talking. I was like, ‘It’s going to be bad, right?’ You started seeing the images where the size of the storm was from Florida to Texas. It was huge and getting closer. He said, ‘You are not going to want to miss this, as a reporter. You are going to want to stick around.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right.’
A lot of people did leave. I’m not saying I acted bravely. It was just, I don’t have anything to lose necessarily. If I had a family at that point, a kid or something, maybe I would have reconsidered.[I felt] I should be here as a journalist and tell the story of the city. I had only been in New Orleans for four months, but I felt like I started to understand the city. That’s an overstatement because New Orleans is a very, very complicated city. Socially, economically, there’s just a lot going on there.
As a police reporter [for the Times-Picayune], I was in the community all the time. I was engaging with the police all the time. I started to really care about this city. You can say this about any city, but [New Orleans has] such amazing, beautiful, open, complicated people. So I decided to stay. Obviously, I had no idea that it would be what it ended up being. I knew it was going to be bad, but there is no way you can conceive of what the city went through.
On approaching journalism with emotion
I’m not a reporter that’s not going to show my emotion. I’m not going to cry on every single [story], but I’m naturally kind of emotional. If something strikes me, I’m not worried about exhibiting that. And sometimes, we’re connecting here. If she’s moved, I’m moved, and you could trust me to do the right thing with the story.
It’s not intentional, I just don’t know how else to be as a journalist.
I think for so much of my career … I learned like, a lede and a nutgraph. I learned some craft things. Through the business, I learned [through] engaging with editors, how best to tell stories grammatically, and flow and pace. But for me, I always felt like a natural storyteller, and I wanted to leave something behind. I wanted to make sure that people’s voices were heard and told in their proper context.
We see, to this day, that stories are so often molested, where you don’t recognize the people, don’t recognize the community, you don’t recognize the voice. I always wanted to make sure that, at the very least, I’m connecting and reflecting that humanity in the best way I could.
On breaking the story on Trayvon Martin
I was the first national reporter to write anything about it. There [had] been a couple of paragraphs locally. The AP had done some stuff, and the Orlando Sentinel had written a response to an attempted robbery. It was just a few sentences.
Because of the work that I had been doing, someone close to [Martin’s] family who I’d actually gotten to know just months before it happened, he just liked the way I did my work. He just liked the way I was telling these stories.
He called me and he told me, ‘Man, this 17-year-old boy got shot. All he had was Skittles and iced tea.’ It just sounded so crazy to me. I was like, ‘Was he doing anything?’ He said, ‘No, trust me, man, the way they’re telling the story ain’t right. I’m here with his dad right now. You want to talk to him?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, let me talk to the dad.’ So me and Tracey Martin, we’re on the phone for like 35 minutes, and he just tells me the story of his son and what happened. He was visiting [Sanford, Florida] from Miami, where he lives with his mom.
At the time, I didn’t know it would become what it became, but I knew immediately, as my mother would say, ‘Something in the milk ain’t clean.’ Something does not sound right about the story.
I was looking at the big picture, and you can see yourself. When I was 17 years old, we were moving around, we were being young, we were tall, and we couldn’t help but be ourselves. You can’t help but imagine.
I wrote that story, and I literally wrote a story a day for two months. I started breaking some news and talking with the family, and every aspect of it, I was just hammering away. Weeks later, people still weren’t really on it. That’s when Ta-Nehisi [Coates] at The Atlantic [got on the story]. We were getting like a million plus views on each story. It was the flood.
Ta-Nehisi, then Charles Blow — the sound started rising. I don’t like to take credit like that. I was in the right place at the right time to tell the story, the right person to tell the story.
If not for those of us who immediately understood the stakes, understood the story, understood how to tell a story, understood that sadly, Trayvon Martin was a vehicle for the bigger thing. Sometimes it’s unfortunate that we hoist all of it onto a family or all of it onto a victim who’s already suffered. But he was actually a vehicle. It was the right story, and it had to be a discussion.
On navigating police narratives
Their job is to keep me from the truth. Not that I don’t care what the police say — obviously they have details, and I’ll hold that against what the community’s saying — but I always go to the community. Go to the family. Go to the people. And not as an aside or secondary to what the institutions say.[The police] are not all necessarily bad people, but I’m always realizing that they’re not trying to tell me the truth. That’s not their interest; it’s definitely not their interest. My interest is in the truth and telling these stories and putting them in the proper context.
With Trayvon, it was one of those moments where you had to break from the system. The reason why no story was written was because [the police] immediately had the whole story about what happened, that this guy [Trayvon] was trying to rob him [George Zimmerman] and Zimmerman defended himself. The same thing with George Floyd. The initial thing was a drug overdose.
You just can’t believe them. You just can’t. I have mistrust for them, because I know that your interests and my interests aren’t the same. That was a moment that spoke to, ‘How are we telling these stories? Who are we relying on? Who are we giving weight to? Who are we giving credence to, and why do we believe them?’
Why do we believe them? Sometimes they’re right, and a lot of times they’re not. Sometimes it’s not that complicated or controversial, but that was the big moment for me. You have to go with your gut. It’s not just two sides, and it’s not just blind trust in these systems and institutions.
They’re going to lie to you, especially when it comes to Black, brown, and marginalized people, because half of them just actually don’t care.
Trayvon was the one. Without that case, I don’t know if you get everything that came afterward, because of how people started to understand these institutions and all the covering up and all the BS. Journalists realized, ‘Maybe we have to shift away [from] who we’re centering in this space, in these stories.’
On advocacy vs. journalism
There was one time in Ferguson [during the Michael Brown protests] where I just happened to be, and I’m always just placed in these spaces before it happens.
My visibility was changing, people started noticing me in the streets. There [was] this one moment where I’m walking and I hear this voice, ‘Trymaine?’ I turned around and the brother’s like, ‘Man, I love what you’re doing.’ It’s three in the morning. But he was like, ‘l love what you’re doing, man. I see you on TV a lot.’ Then one of his boys came over, half drunk. He was like, ‘Put your hands up for Mike Brown.’ I was like, ‘Come on, be easy.’
It was one of those clarifying [moments] where I’m definitely not putting my hands up for Mike Brown because that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m not here to protest for Mike Brown. I’m here to talk about injustice, injustice in the system, and how Black people are ground up by the machine.[I’m here to] put a narrative around this, so people are going to understand what’s happening in this case but also the bigger patch work of systems failures. It was a clarifying moment, reminding everyone that I’m here for the people. I’m not an advocate or an activist.
Our allegiances are to the truth, and to the people. Comforting the afflicted. But again, you have to be careful. I know some reporters who end up being essentially cops. They’re in so good with the cops that they’re essentially cops. They’re going to spin the thing.
If you’re not scared to go to certain places, and you’re not scared of certain relationships and bridges, the activists will get you all up in it, if they trust you. That’s the space that I want to be in, because that’s where it’s actually happening. But I think you have to be wary, reminding yourself you are a journalist and that goes beyond this individual group or this individual activist.